When the world is ugly

I started coloring the week after Trump got elected.

I’m fairly certain adult coloring was trendy before that, but make no mistake: the 2016 election was the thing that drove me into a Target store, stress eating popcorn, grabbing coloring books and markers off the shelf as if my life—or at least my mental health—depended on it. Experts proclaim adult coloring to be “therapeutic” and a successful way to reduce anxiety. I know this because once upon a time, I pitched four book ideas to an agent, and one of them was a coloring book for moms. I did my research; I read the articles. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I can only color so many Paw Patrol sheets before my mind goes completely numb.

But I digress.

Adult coloring seemed a hell of a lot cheaper than booking appointments with an actual therapist to rant about politics, which is why, on the same day I picked up a coloring book at Target, I instituted 5pm as the official “Art Hour” in our house.

Every day went like this: Carson woke up from his nap, hair all awry, and I carried him to meet his brother on the couch where they sat side by side eating goldfish crackers out of matching snack cups while watching one episode of the PBS show du jour. If I remember correctly, last fall Curious George was all the rage. (They’ve since moved on to Cat In The Hat.)

I covered the coffee table in wrapping paper while the show played, careful to only place washable markers within arm’s reach. I tossed Paw patrol coloring books, Elmo sticker books, and a handful of plain white paper on the table.

As soon as the show ended, I turned the TV off and turned Pandora on, rotating every other day between Delta Rae and Trevor Hall stations. I closed my computer, the news, all social media apps, and tried really hard not to think about everything I’d read that day for thirty whole minutes. Sixty if I could keep the kids interested that long.

Everett colored, Carson scribbled, and I placed all of my anxiety into a collection of fine-tip markers, moving them up and down and all around shading in flowers and butterflies.

***

A couple months ago, I learned that my friend’s daughter, Riley, was having a hard time in fourth grade. Her family had just moved to a new town, and some of the girls at the new school were picking on her.

I felt oddly protective of Riley, even though she’s not my kid. I’ve never even met her. But her mom has been writing with me for almost three years now and when her mom feels the heartache of motherhood, I feel it too.

I asked Riley’s mom if it would be okay if I sent a letter and care package to Riley in the mail. She said yes, and I got to work. As I sat down to write a letter to Riley, my mind transported back to a scene from my own 4th grade. It was a field trip day, and we were on a bus, although I cannot remember where we were going. I do, however, remember a girl making fun of my outfit. I went to a private Christian school with uniforms, so any time we had a “free dress day” it was a pretty big deal. My outfit had been carefully chosen. I can’t be certain, but I am 90% positive I was wearing a vest of some kind.

My friend, who was sitting next to me on the bus, looked at the girl who was teasing me and said, “Hey, cut it out. What would Jesus do?”

(Cue all the jokes about Christian school cliches, I know.)

(Wait for it.)

The girl looked me up and down, sneered, and said: “What would Jesus do? More like what would Jesus WEAR?”

(I cannot even type that without laughing.)

Obviously today, at 31 years old, this story is hilarious to me. But at nine? I was devastated. I told Riley all about my experience and reassured her that 4th grade is hard and sometimes girls aren’t nice. I’m usually not one to dole out advice, but considering the 20+ year age gap between us, I felt slightly obligated to shed some light on the situation. After all, I’ve learned a thing or two about coping skills since I was her age. With my pen to paper, I started drafting a list of what Riley could do to feel better the next time someone picks on her.  

Riley’s Feel Better Plan

1) Eat some candy. Not too much, but a little bit of sugar can work wonders.

2) Color a picture. When the world is ugly, sometimes the best thing you can do is make something beautiful in response.

3) Write your feelings. This could be a story, a few words, or just a bunch of sad faces. There’s no right or wrong way to write your feelings. Your mom is really good at this; she can help.

4) Put on Dr. Pepper chapstick. This is actually the most important step. I can’t explain it, but when I was in 4th grade, this was my superpower. As soon as I put it on, I felt 100x better. Keep this in your backpack at all times in case of emergency!

I folded the three-page letter and tucked it into a padded envelope with a coloring book, journal, pack of jelly beans, and tube of Dr. Pepper chapstick (which was surprisingly hard to find). I said a little prayer for Riley and dropped the package at the post office.

***

I am sitting in my tiny living room surrounded by women with their hands on me. It is 2012 and I am weeks away from meeting my first baby. There’s a hand on my thigh, my ankle, my pregnant belly, a few on my back. I have just taken my turn sharing my testimony and they are praying over me to close the night. Camille leads the charge, her hand firm on my shoulder.

With power in her voice, she lays out a specific prediction.

It feels like an earthquake in my bones.

A few weeks later we exchange e-mails, and this is what she says:

I felt tingles when I prayed that prayer over you. I felt so strongly that it was the Holy Spirit; it wasn’t anything I planned on saying. I’ve been thinking of you a lot and your transition to motherhood. I feel like motherhood is going to be a broad calling for you, not just with your precious baby, but there are going to be many girls that will look to you as their mother. There will be girls that will feel drawn to you for mentoring, advice, encouragement, and spiritual leadership. You are a magnet and God is not going to pass on giving you opportunities.

I did not have the slightest clue what Camille’s prayer would mean for my life, but I let her e-mail live in my inbox for five years just in case.

***

Every time I log on to Twitter, there is a new thing to be angry about. A fresh outrage. 100 recent injustices in the news. Corruption. Terror. It’s everywhere. All of the time. And no amount of adult coloring is going to erase it.

The hardest part of having a book come out in this type of political climate is that you start to feel really, really stupid. You start to ask yourself questions like, do these words even matter? To anyone? There are bombs going off in Syria and terrorist attacks in London and do not even get me started on the horrifying joke that is our current administration.

Every day I lead a team of women who are committed to encouraging mothers through the art of storytelling. I used to think it mattered. A lot. I wouldn’t have worked this hard, for this long, for this little money, if I didn’t think the work was worthwhile. But lately I find myself asking, is this necessary? Does anyone even need this?

Everywhere I turn, the world is ugly. And the louder the news gets, the quieter my voice becomes. The world is on fire and here I am typing away, wasting my damn time.

***

I want to tell you something about God. Something you probably won’t believe if you don’t believe in God, but something I feel pressed to tell you nonetheless.

You see, God has a solid track record of affirming my work right when I’m at the peak of despair. It’s usually when the enemy is speaking directly to my soul, leading me to believe that I’m a horrible writer, a horrible leader, and a horrible person. Your work doesn’t matter, he hisses late at night. You are nothing, this work means nothing, you should just quit now. You’re a joke, an imposter. You should find better things to do with your time. Everything you've ever done is meaningless. I hear him at 3am while I toss and turn under the sheets. I pray him away, but the words burn in my head till I wake up.

This silent battle continues for weeks in the middle of spring. The devil in my ear, magnifying my insecurities and squelching my confidence. He's determined to cast doubt in my mind and plant fear in my heart and make me question everything I have ever believed.

And then on a Friday morning in May, like a ray of light, a short story appears in my Instagram from a woman named Callie.

She has left me 12 long, private messages. I begin reading, and learn that Callie had spent the day at the hospital being thoroughly checked for breast cancer. She left her preschooler and newborn at home with her husband, crying as she left. On the way out the door, she grabbed her copy of The Magic of Motherhood and shoved it in her purse. 

She tells me how she felt panicked in the car, and turned on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast to keep her company. She tells me how she read the first three chapters of our book in the waiting room, blissfully distracted.

She writes:

As I trailed behind the doctor into a new room, it really hit me. I picked that book up today so I wouldn’t be alone. Today I needed a friend, a support crew. Something to feel connected to before I received what could be life-changing news.

As I sprinted out the door earlier, it was your written friendship I grasped. I hadn’t even realized how much I didn’t want to be alone. But there I was, supported, in a pale pink waiting room, by stories and writers I’ve never even met.

Callie was quick to tell me she was fine and healthy (praise God!), but I had tears streaming down my face all the same. Here I am, a mom of two young kids in California, questioning the very work the Lord has put in front of my face. There she is, a mom of two young kids in Australia, clutching the same work in her hands on a day when she felt alone and scared.

There God is, in everything, all of the time, connecting the dots and weaving the story together, making sure His voice is always louder than the one I hear hissing in the middle of the night.

***

“The E-mail” lands in my inbox on a Wednesday morning. Aggressive. Rude. Unnecessary and not constructive in the slightest. I’ve been writing on the Internet since 2009 and you’d think this stuff wouldn’t phase me anymore, but it does.

I am human, after all.

She is angry that we use the word “motherhood” on our site when we have not launched grown children into the world. She is offended that we have the nerve to write about our experiences when our children are so young and our scope is so narrow.

But really, at the heart of it, her message is loud and clear: your work is meaningless.

If God can deliver messages through people on earth, I suppose it should be expected that the enemy would do the same.

A careful response is crafted with help from my team—peaceful, but firm. I click send and the e-mail immediately bounces back.

Of course she used a fake e-mail address.

(They always do.)

“Coward!” I shout as I slam my laptop shut.

Angry at the amount of energy I have just wasted, I stand up and look around. I need to fix the morning, to redeem the day. This situation calls for something more than a coloring page, but I’m pretty sure if I start writing my feelings, a high volume of the f word is going to come out. I grab my own Dr. Pepper chapstick and roll it back and forth in my hand for a minute before applying it.

(You didn’t think I only bought some for Riley, did you?)

I know what I need to do.

I need to make something beautiful.

My eye catches a plastic Target bag sitting near the front door. It contains small gifts that should have been sent weeks ago. I go back to Instagram and re-read a string of messages from another stranger named Brittany, fresh tears forming in my eyes. Brittany and her sister had been pregnant together, due the same month and year. Two days after Brittany delivered a baby boy, her sister delivered a stillborn daughter. I try to imagine this; my close friend and I had our second babies just a few weeks apart. What would we have done if only one baby had survived? The grief is unthinkable.

I grab some tissue paper from the hall closet, pivoting into my office to retrieve one of the few remaining signed copies of The Magic of Motherhood from my bookshelf. I sit down at the dining room table to sign a card before tucking a journal, two candles, two face masks, and the book into another padded envelope.

I say a little prayer for both sisters, and drop the package at the post office.

***

I am sitting at a candlelit dinner with 20 women, taking turns passing a giant amethyst rock clockwise around the table. The rules are simple: whoever holds the rock shares something they’re scared to say out loud. No skips.

(I severely underestimated how emotional this conversation would be.)

The stories are more heartbreaking than I imagined—tales of miscarriages and near-death experiences, alcoholism and eating disorders, broken marriages and postpartum depression. Five minutes in, I stop fighting the urge to cry. It is pointless. I cry on and off for the duration of the dinner, secretly wondering if there are traces of mascara smeared all over my face.

It’s Chrissie’s turn now—a woman I have known for exactly one hour. Her story is perhaps the simplest of all: she is lonely. With three young children under her care, she often feels too anxious or overwhelmed to attend playdates and mom groups. She’s home a lot. She tells us how someone tagged her in the event post on Instagram, and, in preparing to attend, she hopped on Amazon and purchased our book.

Her eyes meet mine, and she begins to tell me how our book has had a profound impact on her life over the past few weeks. She tells me how, for the first time since becoming a mom, she felt understood. Encouraged. Not alone. She is crying now, and I’m crying watching her cry, and she says, “I feel like the women who wrote these stories are my friends.”

I am speechless.

Her words echo in my mind as I fall asleep, keeping the hissing at bay.

I know he'll be back soon, but tonight, I rest.  

***

Last I checked, the world is still ugly. I think it will be until Jesus comes back. My coloring pages aren’t really helping anyone, but my other art is. I believe that. I have to believe that. I believe it because no matter how far back I look in the rearview mirror of my life, there God is. Over and over again—laying out the plan, opening the map, and telling me which way to go. I never see the whole picture, but I always see enough to take a leap of faith (even when I'm terrified). 

I wish courage came before obedience, don't you? 

Until then, let's keep going, Lord.

Only by Your grace, may I look around this ugly world and keep making beautiful things.

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Ashlee Gadd

Ashlee Gadd is a wife, mother, writer and photographer from Sacramento, California. When she’s not dancing in the kitchen with her two boys, Ashlee loves curling up with a good book, lounging in the sunshine, and making friends on the Internet. She loves writing about everything from motherhood and marriage to friendship and faith.

on fear, criticism, scraps, and feasts.

ashleefam62 I have recently become obsessed with reading Amazon book reviews.

It’s a normal thing I do now, like checking my bank account or reading The Skimm. At least once or twice a week, I sit in bed with my laptop, perusing Amazon for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes reading reviews of books—mostly books I’ve read, but occasionally books I haven’t.

In my own twisted mind, I have adopted this process as a way of preparing myself for what’s to come. After all, next April people will be leaving reviews on our book. Right there on the Internet, for all the world to see.

I have never been so terrified.

My entire career (as I know it now) was founded on the Internet. I started writing, for free, on the Internet. I taught myself how to be a photographer on the Internet. I launched a website—which eventually turned into a podcast, a shop, a writing course, a book deal—thanks to the great people of the Internet.

I have honed a craft on the Internet, created my own dream job on the Internet, and made a ton of real, genuine friends on the Internet. Suffice it to say, I love the Internet.

And yet.

The Internet still scares the crap out of me.

---

A woman I know recently published a book on motherhood. On the very day it was released, a small herd of people tore her to shreds. They left a noticeable streak of 1-star reviews, questioning a number of things: her motives, her theology, how many times she mentioned Jesus in the book (not enough, apparently). They called her names, questioned her faith, and described her book as "a waste of time" and "a huge disappointment."

The most alarming part was not the negative reviews themselves, but rather the number of people voting the reviews as “helpful” – which caused all of the 1-star reviews to float to the top of the page like a dark cloud.

I think of how hard this woman worked on that book, how many early mornings and late nights she spent writing and re-writing and editing and praying over those words. I think of all the people who were involved with the manuscript: editors and agents, friends and family. All to have it discredited, loudly, in the first 24 hours that people are allowed to comment publicly online.

I read the book myself. It was not the best book I have ever read, nor was it the worst. I found nothing in those pages worthy of the harsh criticism she received.

And that was the most disturbing part about it.

---

We do a reader survey for Coffee + Crumbs every year. The responses pour in by the hundreds, always around the same ratio: 94% positive, 6% negative.

The most interesting thing about that 6% is that they’re all upset about something different.

One says, “Your posts are too depressing.” Another says, “I feel like you wrap up every essay with a neat little bow; that’s not real life.” One says, “I wish you guys would lighten up a bit.” Another says, “You’ve become too precious.” One says, “You talk about God too much.” Another says, “You don’t talk about God enough.”

I take all the feedback with a grain of salt, and bring it to the team. (Worth mentioning: this is the same team who currently writes for no pay.)

My friend Anna reminds me of this truth as we analyze the feedback as a group:

“We cannot be all things to all people, but we can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”

---

Anne Lamott once wrote, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do---the actual act of writing---turns out to be the best part.”

---

Last Wednesday Everett came home from preschool and pulled artwork out of his backpack with an excited grin, his face beaming like the sun.

“Look what I made today, momma!”

He held up a yellow piece of paper with scribbles and stamps on it.

“I made it for you!” he said proudly.

I smiled at him, kneeling down to take the paper from his hands. Before I even responded, he darted out of the room to go find his Elmo.

---

Sometimes I find myself wishing that Coffee + Crumbs would stay small. There seems to be safety in smallness, less chances for harsh criticism and online hate. But in the very next breath I am working on a list of endorsers, adding ideas to the book marketing plan.

How does that work? How can I simultaneously want to grow bigger and stay small? How can I want our writing to reach more people while also wanting to stay in this safe cocoon we have managed to reside in for two whole years?

I suppose it is no different than motherhood.

I look at Carson, the Velcro baby of all Velcro babies. He is only two. There are probably loads of hilarious things that will someday come out of his mouth, brilliant ideas he will have, inspiring art he will create. And yet if I could keep him this small, waddling around the house in a diaper, I probably would. I would rock him in the grey rocking chair every night by the twinkle of the fish nightlight, burying my face in his neck and smelling his baby skin forever and ever.

He’s sweet and safe here, in the nest.

I know I can’t keep him here forever. At some point he will fly away to do good things, to make mistakes, to love and be loved, to leave a unique footprint on the earth. To keep him in the nest forever would stunt him, stifle him, trap him, and hinder him from reaching his full potential.

It’s still tempting, though.

We’re so cozy here.

---

Our pastor recently preached a sermon on the time Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the things I really love about our pastor is his ability to take a story I’ve heard a dozen times and put a fresh spin on it.

So he’s telling the story I already know: Jesus goes out on a boat to be alone, but the crowds follow him. The disciples tell Jesus that it's getting late, and that He should send the people away. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat.

The disciples look down at what they have, confused. They tell Jesus they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. It's not enough.

And then—this is the key, the fresh spin—Jesus says this: “Bring them here to me.”

You know how the story ends. He looks up to Heaven, breaks the bread, and feeds 5,000 men (plus women and children). There is enough leftover to fill twelve baskets.

---

How many times have I looked down at my work, my resources, my bank account, my art, my gifts and thought, this isn’t enough?

This isn’t good enough, God. This won’t work, God.

Perhaps I have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along.

It’s not my job to show up with a feast. It’s certainly not my job to work miracles. No, it’s my job to show up with the scraps, with my not-good-enough work and my not-good-enough talents and bring them to Him. It’s my job to put those scraps in greater hands and trust and believe with my whole heart that He is the only one capable of turning it into a feast.

---

This is the truth: I am damn proud of this book. I am proud of every essay in there, of every writer who contributed, of every story we reached deep into our hearts to find.

This is also the truth: I am terrified of what people will say about it. I am terrified of people ripping us apart, terrified that in the daylight I’ll shrug it off and say I’m fine but at 3am a single tear will roll down my cheek while I dissect the criticism in my head.

I don’t know how to keep courage. I don’t know how to stay brave when there might be people waiting in the wings to tear us down. I don’t know how to be stronger. I don’t know how to fight this, how to overcome my overwhelming insecurity. Sometimes I wonder if I should simply block Amazon from my browser so I won’t be tempted to check the reviews 400 times.

I’ll tell you what I’m praying for, though.

I’m praying that God will take our scraps and turn them into something beautiful. I'm praying that He alone will receive the glory if and when a feast arrives. I’m praying that the complaints—and the praise, to be honest—will not affect the way we see our own work. I’m praying that next April we will pull this artwork out of our backpacks, faces beaming like the sun, and hand it to the world with a simple, “We made this for you!”

Because we did. We made this for you.

Onward and upward.